More significantly – since it is the probable reason for Roger’s success – this experiment in combining film techniques is founded in a stylishly funny conceit. Toons, it seems, are not drawn characters who owe their existence to some pencil-pushing Olympian, they are another race of beings who sell their remarkable talents to the cartoon studios of Hollywood rather as freaks once sold their bizarre personalities to carnival bosses.
It is a fairly wild idea and not without its illogicalities. Although the Toons appear to acknowledge some inky origin (“I’m not bad,” says Roger’s human-Toon wife, Jessica, “I’m just drawn that way!”) and despite the fact that their very existence is threatened by a villain with drums of turpentine-solvent, there is no attempt to explain how such curious creatures came into being”.
However, due to the film’s relentlessly frenetic pace, these and other disturbing questions (such as the exact nature of intimate relations between cartoon rabbit and a busty cartoon broad with bedroom eyes) have little chance to do more than flicker through one’s subconscious.
The fast and furious style is established from the outset, when the cartoon heads of Roger Rabbit and his co-star, Baby Herman, burst onto the screen with bright paint-box colours and a brash loony-tune score. This is R.K. Marroon’s new picture Something’s Cookin’. What’s cooking is the hapless Roger who is baby-minding Herman – a wide-eyed, wilful innocent who is intent on reaching a cookie-jar on top of the refrigerator. As Roger attempts to prevent his charge from having an accident, he becomes the target for every violent mishap in the gag-book.
In what is a masterpiece of cartoon mania – animated at roller-coaster speed with vertigo-inducing perspectives – Roger has to cope with flying knives and cleavers, falling pots and pans and a fold-up ironing-board. He swallows an entire bottle of chilli-sauce, is cooked in an ACME oven (set, of course, to ‘Volcano Heat’), puts his fingers in electricity sockets and is turned into a temporary X-ray, and is blown up like a balloon by a Suck- o-Lux vacuum-cleaner. Only when the refrigerator falls on his head does a voice shout “Cut!” and the cameras pull back to reveal Roger inside a real fridge on a movie sound-stage littered with cartoon-style props.
The take has been ruined because instead of seeing stars, Roger sees bluebirds. Baby Herman, cursing in a Brooklyn accent and goosing the girls as he goes, storms off the set while Roger frantically hits himself again and again on the head in an attempt to produce th elusive stars…
It is a scene observed by Bob Hoskins as the once-successful-now-on-the- bottle detective, Eddie Valiant. “Toons!” he mutters contemptuously, and takes a slug of rye. It is an extraordinary opening to a quite extraordinary movie.
The plot is complex to say the least: even after three screenings, I find it difficult to give an altogether accurate chronology of events. Suffice it to say that Eddie Valiant -whose brother was killed when a Toon dropped a piano on his head – is hired by R.K. Maroon (Alan Tilvern) to investigate rumours that Jessica Rabbit (with the uncredited voice of Kathleen Turner) is having an affair with Marvin Acme (Stubby Kaye), owner of Toontown and head of the Acme gag company – “If it’s ACME it’s a gasser.”
What begins as a case of suspected marital infidelity, soon becomes a murder enquiry when Acme is flattened by a falling safe. Not surprisingly, Roger Rabbit (whose frenzied lisping and spluttering is provided by Charles Fleischer) is suspect number one. Eddie Valiant – who has previously unmasked the kidnapper of Donald Duck’s nephews and cleared Goofy of spying charges – decides to help the screwball rabbit clear his name.
But who is the sinister Judge Doom (Christopher Lloyd)? And what connection is there between his plans to wipe out Toontown and the siting of Los Angeles’ first freeway? During the unravelling of these mysteries, we are treated to some remarkable performances from the creatures of the drawing-board and, in the human department, from Bob Hoskins who acts his scenes with Roger Rabbit as if his cartoon co-star were really there. There hasn’t been a screen-partnership like this since James Stewart and Harvey!
There is also Zemeckis’ unerringly accurate sense of period Hollywood with its palm-fringed streets, trash-littered alleys, gaudy neon lights and rattling, clanging streetcars. Production Designers, Elliot Scott and Roger Cain (whatever happened to ‘Art Directors’?) have created evocative sets:
R.K. Maroon’s art deco office suite; Eddie Valiant’s ramshackle detective- agency-cum-batchelor-apartment; and the cigarette-ash and beer-stained interior of the Terminal Station Bar, where the comings and goings of the trains shakes the whole building and shorts the lights.